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SAFe PI Planning – tips & tricks

The Scaled Agile Framework doesn’t mess around when describing the importance of Program Increment (PI) Planning to your SAFe implementation.

The framework gives some great guidance on how to setup your PI Planning to succeed but what about those little bits of information you learn in your first few iterations? Here are some of those tips and lessons learned that Elabor8 consultants have picked up along the way.

For those unfamiliar with SAFe, the PI Planning ceremony is a major event which happens every 2-3 months for a long lasting group of agile teams called an “Agile Release Train”.

The PI Planning ceremony gathers those teams together with their stakeholders for a highly collaborative group planning session where features are decomposed into stories, dependencies and risks are identified and the team commits to objectives. It’s kind of like a scaled version of a team sprint planning session.

PI Planning

PI Planning: Homework

PI Planning is not the first step of your next program increment. It is the culmination of a series of activities including product development and customer testing, aimed at building your Epic/Feature roadmap. A key factor to great planning is a shared vision between the PO, BA and Tech Lead or Solution Designer.

Involvement in early high level design and product discovery workshops develops clarity in product vision, reinforces valuable customer centricity and provides a thorough appreciation for a broader solution context.

These sessions, supplemented with the current backlog, should provide the necessary information to identify the potential scope of the team for the PI planning event. This means that in your PI Planning there should be less unknowns and the team will have a solid amount of material to reference and an informed group of people who can answer any questions on the spot.

Things that really help to have on the day are:

  • Features printed onto story cards
  • Large-format printed copies of wireframes & customer journey maps
  • Customer testing results
  • Post-it easel pads
  • Additional blank story cards
  • 1 Sharpie for every person (even if you don’t think they’ll use it)
  • More Blu-Tack than you think you’ll need!
  • Accessible Wifi network
  • Previous unresolved retro items that you might be able to resolve in PI Planning

PI Planning: Bring your team, build your team

In one of our larger programs we had a considerable portion of our workforce located across Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth and other cities. We flew a huge contingent of those team members into our Sydney office for the two days of PI Planning.

We knew that getting everyone together and away from videoconferencing was a vitally important part of gaining the shared understanding before commencing the Program Increment. This short timeframe and gathering everybody in the same room created a renewed focus on getting things done and having any conversations that needed to happen face-to-face.

What we didn’t anticipate was the energy and buzz that would bring to the PI Planning event. By being able to put a name to a face is a major stepping stone to building your team, especially in a large organisation or a distributed workforce as in this case.

If you’re an Australian team, make sure to book a space at a pub for drinks when the day is finished, that’s where the bonding happens and deeper conversations can take place. Elsewhere in the world try and provide a casual environment afterwards for people to meet and socialise in a less formal way.

In SAFe speak, enable your teams to build your ART social network!

PI Planning: Ensure you have enough space

Finding a venue big enough to hold 50+ people can be tricky, even in those large organisations with big spaces for events. Add in the complication that you might be booking for two consecutive days for up to 125 people and it gets really tough.

We saw great benefits in booking a large space that is far enough away from the office to remove people from their day-to-day work but also close enough to enable your guest speakers and leaders to attend without too much of a travel barrier. Make sure to book in your speakers, teams and venue well in advance!

Room layout may seem like a simple thing, have a bunch of tables and a spot at the front of the room for guest speakers. Easy right?

If done correctly, room layout can be a key enabler of high-bandwidth communication and cross-team coordination; two activities specifically called out in the SAFe PI Planning guidance. This room will be your home for the next two days so be sure to make it effective for your teams.

Your venue should be big enough to hold your maximum attendance with breathing room as well as a wall for the team breakout segment. If the space is too small it can quickly become cramped and hamper people’s ability to move around the room to collaborate.

The wall in the team breakout area will hold all of the team’s outputs for the sessions so this needs to be a good size and easily accessible.

Here is seating layout from one of our initial PI Planning sessions:

PI planning seating

We found this layout a little restrictive initially as people couldn’t really move around between teams and look at each other’s walls. We made a few subtle changes to the tables during a break and found that people were moving around the room much more freely.

PI planning seating

PI Planning: Share the vision, set the tone

As a speaker in this segment it is probably one of the few opportunities you have to lead your team and to describe the high level context in which you operate and you make your decisions within. This segment can be a great tool to set the tone for the PI Planning session. It can also drive excitement for the Program Increment and the product.

It’s a chance to share product success stories and demonstrate thought leadership in your part of the organisation. In one organisation, after a presentation by a leader, I was speaking with a team member and they said “Where was the Braveheart speech? I wanted to feel motivated!”

People prosper in environments where they have Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

The SAFe framework gives your team Autonomy and Mastery through self organisation, in-built quality and slack for innovation, but your team also needs a sense of Purpose. Tell your teams how great they are. Tell them how well the features they built have been received and benefited the customer. Tell them what you need to make this Program Increment a successful one!

7 comments

  • Avatar
    Peter Sheehan

    Hi Greg,

    Great article and really glad you are in favour of flying people to one location rather than doing it over VC. I’ve always found this leads to increased engagement and because of the that, better outcomes.

    A question though: Under what circumstances (if any) would you cancel or postpone a PI Planning meeting? I once worked for a company that had a rule that any large project/program planning meetings would not go ahead if the sponsor did not attend, regardless of who else showed up and how far they traveled. (The thinking was that if the sponsor could not make the time commitment at the planning stage , they were showing a lack of commitment to the project and they were unlikely to be available during the execution phase of the project when they were needed to make decisions.)

    Any thoughts??

    Peter.

    • Greg Shield
      Greg Shield

      Hi Peter, thanks for reading! It’s very hard to cancel your session when everyone has already flown in! There are probably a number of situations that could cause you to postpone or cancel, in your example above I would tend to agree although I would hope in that case that your leadership and teams were empowered to make decisions without the sponsor. I would also add to that, I would definitely be taking a pragmatic approach and considering all options in the event of any major changes that affect your readiness (i.e. Organisation, Content, Facilities as specified in PI Planning).

      Hope that helps.
      Greg

  • Avatar
    Steve Sargent

    I would not recommend cancelling the PI Planning session. I’ve seen it be moved if attendance may be questionable. i.e. the event falls the week of Thanksgiving. The importance of cadence needs to be stressed. PI Planning, the Showcase and Inspect and Adapt are vital for an Agile Release Train. If PI Planning is cancelled, I wonder what mechanism is used to get work from the Product Management Team down to the Sprint Teams? Assuming teams completed work from the prior Program Increment they are awaiting more work from the Product Management Team. Program Increment Planning is key to transitioning the work to the teams and the teams having the face to face collaboration time to dig into the work before the next increment starts.

  • Avatar
    Monish Correia

    is it really beneficial to do PI planning ?? why should we do PI planning in first place?? Please let me know your thoughts. Thanks.

    • Greg Shield
      Greg Shield

      Hi Monish, thanks for your question.

      PI Planning is an “integral and essential” activity in any SAFe program for sharing the vision, gaining alignment, planning your work and identifying & managing risks/dependencies for the upcoming increment. It’s a way for teams to plan their work and at the same time enables high bandwidth communication between other teams if required. It also gives the program leadership a way of having insight into team objectives and risks highlighted during the process and any plans can be adjusted accordingly during the session. I recommend you read the SAFe framework abstract for more information: http://www.scaledagileframework.com/pi-planning/ or alternatively there is some really good guidance in the Leading SAFe course.

      Thanks,

      Greg

  • Avatar
    Denise

    Hello; looking for fun items to a PI meeting to keep everyone engaged and not get into a boredom state. Thinking of different color flags for teams to hold when they need agile coaches or a business help, etc…Anyone have any ideas that is suitable for PI meetings?

    Thank you.
    Denise

  • Avatar
    Nagini C

    What if the sponsor, architects, BA, Feature Leads are on site but the actual dev and test teams are offshore? How do you manage the 2 day PI session? its almost a night shift for off shore teams for 2 days and their efforts are not always shown against PI planning capacity. a VC or a TP are also not working after the first half day as the teams break into smaller teams and brainstorm on specific SPs. Sometimes the audio also wouldn’t be clear as the onsite teams are scattered across the room during the session and the posters or the write ups put up on the walls are not clear to the off shore team due to the camera angles in the TP rooms.

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